Fantasy Football Tight End Preview: Split Ends vs Tight Ends
Andrew Copper takes a look at the tight end position and breaks down the impact and difference between split ends and tight ends.
When it comes to playing time we immediately look to the depth chart at the position in question. And for many positions that’s simple – there is one starting quarterback, one starting kicker, one punter, one center. For most QBs, there is no threat of losing snaps to the back up and there are very few formations that don’t feature the quarterback, aside from the wildcat. For some positions, like tight end or running back, it’s a bit more complex than that - as we discussed in our second draft impact article last week. One backfield group in an organization might have multiple different kinds of backs and there may even be a separate depth chart for each. For instance, the Patriots have deployed a running down back (Corey Dillon, LeGarrette Blount , Sony Michel ), a passing down back (Kevin Faulk, Danny Woodhead , James White ), a fullback (Marc Edwards, Heath Evans, James Devlin), and even an H-back (Aaron Hernandez and now potentially Dalton Keene) for 20 years now. It’s not a linear depth chart which makes the snaps more difficult to predict. Modern tight end operates the same way. Sure, you have some every-down tight ends, but you also have blocking tight ends, move tight ends, H-backs, etc. It complicates things.
But what if I told you there was another additional force at play further complicating how we predict tight end snaps? Beyond the depth chart, beyond the players individual usage? One that isn’t discussed nearly as frequently or deemed nearly as important as depth chart? Well we wouldn’t be having this conversation if there wasn’t so I’m sure you can surmise that there is. And that’s personnel groupings. Specifically, the quiet and often overlooked battle of splits ends versus tight ends in regard to snaps.
The rules of the game dictate that you need seven guys on the line of scrimmage on offense every play. Of these seven, the farthest wide guys on each side of the field are eligible to catch passes. Assuming two tackles, two guards, and a center, that means you need two pass catchers tethered to the line of scrimmage on every play in the form of split or tight ends. The most common personnel grouping, 11 personnel is shown in a single back formation below (personnel groupings are numbered running backs-tight ends so “11” personnel means one running back, one tight end, with the assumption being the remainder are wide receivers. 12 personnel would be one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers etc.)
Despite 11 personnel being the most popular option, some teams opt to run two tight end sets and they do so for a variety of reasons. The Ravens (42% of their plays featured at least two tight ends in 2019) do so because they are a power running team with a power running quarterback and going heavy helps with the run game. The Vikings (54%) seemed to opt for two tight end sets for a combination of run game and the lack of a third viable wide receiver. The Eagles (56%) of the time simply have two very capable three down tight ends and battle injuries to Alshon Jeffrey, DeSean Jackson , and Nelson Agholor . But there is another big reason a team may opt for two tight end sets and that’s what interests us today.
It’s no secret that whoever puts their foot down on the line of scrimmage has to face many wide receivers’ worst nightmare. The jam. Because of that seven guys on the line rule, you have to put your foot down right on the line where the corner can be one foot away blowing snot bubbles through out of his facemask. A flanker or split end not only has a foot or more of cushion, they can also go in motion at any time to gain an edge or separation. The split end can only do so via a coordinated series of events involving the split end stepping back, an untethered wide receiver stepping up, and then they have permission to go in motion. It’s not deceptive and can often result in illegal motion or illegal formation penalties if not handled correctly. The 2014 Patriots took advantage of this predicament, putting the 6’4” Brandon Browner face to face with split ends to torment them with a safety over the top while Darrelle Revis shadowed whatever poor sap lined up as the flanker. That team won the super bowl.
I mention this in a tight end article because not every team has a split end who is big enough or slippery enough to beat the jam. The Indianapolis Colts for instance have had the 5’10” 183-pound T.Y. Hilton as their top pass catcher for years. So, they combat this issue by running two tight end sets often with two flankers so that a guy like Hilton can line up behind the line with a cushion or go in motion so he doesn’t get held up at the line. If you had T.Y. line up at split end regularly, the other team would surely press the smaller WR making his life a living hell. Every team needs to find some way to deal with it. Brandin Cooks just spent two years facing top coverage and eating jam so that Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp could feast.
Conversely, some teams opt to feature two split ends out wide and either multiple slot guys or multiple running backs with no tight ends. Kliff Kingsbury brought Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to the NFL last year which famously relies heavily on four wide sets. The Cardinals ran 36% of their snaps last year with no tight ends on the field – 33% of those snaps featured two split ends and two slot guys. The Chargers ran out three wide receiver sets on nearly three fourths of their plays and only had two tight ends out there for 15% of the snaps. The Bengals and Redskins used similar deployment of wide receivers with low end tight end use – this leaves limited snaps for the entire tight end group which can hamper production for everyone, including the top dog. The more total tight end snaps, the more the top guy is going to get because, if they only use one, that means the starter comes out for the backup(s) to get some reps.
Whatever the reason may be, two tight end usage is great for the top pass catching tight end and it can even produce two fantasy relevant tight ends. In 2014, via the exact scenario I described above, we saw Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen both score 8 touchdowns on the Colts. On the Eagles, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert finished as fantasy TE5 and TE10 just last season. Mark Andrews was able to finish as a top-five tight end despite playing far fewer snaps than Nick Boyle (69.6%) and the same number as Hayden Hurst (41.3%). And who could forget Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez finishing TE1 and TE3 in 2011.
By nature of the draft, there aren’t many positive impacts on incumbent players. Being a “winner” often just means no competition came in or maybe they beefed up the front line. We touched on this one in our first round impact article but it falls right in line with this topic. Early in the offseason, Irv Smith Jr. was a clear winner of the Stefon Diggs trade. Last year he lined up in the slot 124 times which accounted for 40.7% of his snaps. So not only were the Vikings using two tight ends frequently as we mentioned earlier, but often times they had Rudolph in-line then used Diggs and Thielen out wide with Irv Smith in the slot. With Diggs being moved, there was a glimmer of hope that Irv could be the second target in that offense and even line up wide on a number of snaps – especially goal to go situations. The addition of Justin Jefferson in the first round of the draft doesn’t completely dash our hopes as obviously Diggs was a developed star in this league, but it sure takes a bit of that shine off as Jefferson should play immediately given his talent and draft capital. The path for Irv Smith Jr. to fantasy relevance is no longer paved in gold.
We’ve discussed the Colts multiple times in this article so it’s only right we discuss them here. The Colts have had split end troubles for some time now. They even had an ill-fated attempt to bring on a 34-year-old Andre Johnson to fill that role in 2015. Most recently they believed Devin Funchess could be the solution then he promptly got hurt in the first game of the season and went on season ending injured reserve. So, the Colts went back to old reliable, using two tight end sets with Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron , instead of heavily featuring a split end. They even used the absolute behemoth that is Mo Alie-Cox on 32% of snaps and not just because Ebron went down with an injury in week 11 – the Colts used THREE tight ends on 7% of their snaps which is an anomaly in the NFL. The Ravens ran 1,064 total plays last season with tight ends taking a total of 1,683 snaps. Even they were only at 6% for three tight end sets.
With Ebron out of the picture after signing with the Steelers, our initial hope was that Jack Doyle could be fantasy relevant. It’s no secret that the tight end in a Phillip Rivers offense is in line to eat. But they soon after brought in Trey Burton , an obvious “move” tight end at 6-2, 238 pounds. So, then our thoughts shifted. Okay, Burton is a pass catcher and he’s being reunited with Frank Reich who was his offensive coordinator with the Eagles where he first saw some success. This could be a sneaky option.
But no. With the second pick of the second round, the Colts selected Michael Pittman Jr. – one of the premier “true” split ends of the draft. At 6’4” 223 pounds, it’s fairly obvious that the USC product was brought in to be that big body with his foot tethered to the line that the Colts have always dreamed of. A punching bag whose job it is to eat the jam while T.Y. and Parris Campbell run wild and free. With Doyle’s limited pass catching prowess (his low average depth of target has always indicated he was more of a safety valve/screen option than a true receiver) and now Pittman to threaten the extra luxury snaps the Colts pass catching tight end typically enjoys, both Colts tight end options are now even less viable than the sliver of hope we once held. Though it’s almost relieving to be spared that guessing game.
Prior to the draft, we felt the Steelers were ramping up to run a lot of two tight end sets with Vance McDonald and the newly acquired Eric Ebron . It makes sense too as JuJu Smith-Schuster has played 66.3% and 61.5% of his snaps out of the slot the last two seasons and Diontae Johnson at 5’10” 183 pounds isn’t lining up at split end. So why not mimic what worked for the Colts while even using the exact player they used for the gig? If that had been the case, Eric Ebron as a primary pass catching tight end might have been a sneaky deep league play as Vance is the more likely to stay in blocking or run shorter routes of the two. Ebron only blocked on 5 of his 213 pass snaps last year and he had an average depth of target of 9.5 yards, meaning he was getting down field, while Vance’s aDot was a very Jack Doyle -esque 5 yards. Ebron’s competition to remain on the field as the other player with his foot tethered to the line was set to be James Washington who has had a mixed debut and certainly wasn’t going to be a threat to take those snaps in the red zone.
That is, until the Steelers drafted Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool with the 17th pick of the second round. At 6’4” 238, some analysts were suggesting Claypool himself could play tight end. But the Steelers just gave Ebron two years, $12 million and Vance McDonald is under contract with a cap hit of $5 million for this year at least so it’s pretty clear they didn’t draft him to play tight end off the rip. What he does do is become a potential hinderance to both Ebron and Vance if he works his way onto the field early, especially if he can prove efficient in the red zone. Ebron and Vance may get first crack and perhaps they still use two tight ends with Claypool and Juju in two-wide sets at the goal line but his addition is obviously not a welcome one for Ebron truthers. There are now three big men battling for two outside spots in Pittsburgh and uncertainty is the enemy in fantasy football.
Statistics for this article were provided by the author, Andrew Cooper, with help from ProFootballFocus.com, PlayerProfiler.com, ProFootballRefence.com, AirYards.com, and SharpFootballStats.com. Follow Coop on Twitter @CoopAFiasco.